When I was a tour guide at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, I would ask the kids what their favorite dinosaur was and many of them would say Brontosaurus. It amazes me that even though scientists have known for 110 years that Brontosaurus was a mistake and never existed, it is still a strong part of American pop culture. Regardless, I think that Brontosaurus is one of the most epic dinosaur genus names.
Brontosaurus breaks down into two parts: bronto and saurus. Bronto comes from the Greek word ‘bronte‘ which means thunder and we already know that saurus comes from the Greek word ‘sauros‘ which means lizard. In other words, Brontosaurus literally means thunder lizard.
Here’s an abridged version of the Brontosaurus story. In 1877, Othniel C. Marsh discovered and described a new sauropod he called Apatosaurus. In 1879, he found another, more complete skeleton and named it Brontosaurus. Brontosaurus became well known and replicas went up in museums across the country. In 1903, Elmer Riggs examined the specimens and concluded that there were not enough differences to justify two different genera and since Apatosaurus came first, there was no need for the name Brontosaurus. Marsh’s specimens weren’t associated with skulls, so he chose one that he found nearby. It wasn’t until 1979 that scientists realized that he had picked the wrong one. Regardless, most people are still infatuated with Brontosaurus despite knowing that it never existed.
The moral of the story is that science is ever changing and we are constantly adjusting our view of the world to reflect the most up-to-date research. Whatever your attachment to Brontosaurus, just remember: dinosaurs aren’t really gone. They persist today as birds, and doesn’t that make the world seem more weird and wonderful?
If you can’t get enough of Brontosaurus and want to learn more about the confusion, check out the links below!
NPR’s explanation of the Brontosaurus confusion.
Here’s a nice summary of the importance of My Beloved Brontosaurus.
Hank Green hosted a Mental Floss video about 50 Science Misconceptions.
xkcd has an amusing take on Brontosaurus’ history.